Reconsidering Sanctions and Shaping Russian Strategy in East Asia


While Putin’s actions in Ukraine have caused a spike in tensions with the West and a long-term cooling of relations, sanctions resulting from the annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass have also fundamentally altered Russia’s strategy in the Asia Pacific. Previously opting to pivot between China and Japan, and using arms sales to help smaller countries hedge against China’s rising military clout, Russia has been forced to align itself closer to China and thus to more willingly acquiesce to Chinese interests. This development does not suit Russian, US, or broader East Asian interests. However, this undesirable outcome may be partially avoided should Japan be encouraged to unilaterally drop sanctions and pursue a peace treaty with Moscow.


Russia’s Shifting Alignments Post-Ukraine

Russia’s unique strategy in the Asia Pacific region, as a power largely invested in maintaining the status quo, has undergone a fundamental shift following the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine. Announced in 2012, Russia’s own Pivot to Asia was designed to maintain influence and protect national interests by devoting more military resources to the region and increasing engagement with multilateral fora. As Moscow’s presence was going to be relatively small no matter what, Russia maintained its traditional strategy of “switching” alignment between the larger regional powers, China and Japan. Now that Japan has joined the US and other Western governments in sanctioning Russia, Putin has been forced to bandwagon with China and improve relations with North Korea– developments which may have negative implications for the US regional agenda and should be countered.

Even before Russia’s current economic crisis, the country had devoted very few financial and human resources to the Far East, and this is unlikely to change given the likely need for budget cuts in 2015. Although the navy is increasing its presence and activity in the region, Russia’s military budget is much lower than America’s or China’s— it only surpassed Japan’s in 2008— while France has refused to deliver the two Mistral Class amphibious transport ships Moscow planned to station in the Pacific. The volume of trade between Russia and East Asian states is relatively small compared to these states’ trade with each other and with the US. Although Russia and China have signed deals to increase Chinese imports of Russian natural gas, import volumes will be close to the amount China imports from Turkmenistan – meaning Russia will not be able to recreate the Russia-EU co-dependent energy relationship for political leverage. Ultimately, sanctions are unlikely to alter Russia’s relative position in the Asia Pacific, but they are likely to impact its strategic options.

The balancing strategy used by Russia to protect its interests can be seen in a number of areas. While new agreements with China include the construction of an additional pipeline from Siberia, Putin previously insisted that Russia’s Eastern Siberia – Pacific Ocean pipeline be able to export to South Korea and Japan instead of going exclusively to China, and until recently Rosneft has sought both Japanese and Chinese investment in Siberian projects. Russia has used arms sales to Vietnam and India to hedge against China’s quickly expanding land and naval forces, routinely selling better quality military technology to India than China. Additionally, during the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in 2013, Moscow disappointed Chinese international relations scholars and policymakers by refusing to take a side in the dispute.


Volition for Tokyo

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, Japan joined its G7 partners in sanctioning various sectors of the Russian economy. As relations with one of Asia’s two dominant powers soured, Moscow had no choice but to bandwagon with Beijing – both countries inked several agreements on military and economic cooperation during the APEC 2014 conference, and China offered aid to Rosneft in December to help Russia avoid financial disaster due to falling oil prices and a rapidly depreciating ruble. Russia and Japan, on the other hand, have both increased incursions by their two air forces, and Russian authorities chided a Japanese military official for bluntly stating ambitions to reclaim the Kuril Islands. Evidently still unhappy with being overly dependent on Beijing, however, Russia has also expanded its contact with North Korea, even as relations between China and the DPRK have worsened significantly over the past year.

Allowing Japan to pivot would not just be a reactive step – there are many long-term benefits to allowing Tokyo and Moscow to improve ties. The signing of a peace treaty, which Prime Minister Abe has made a priority of his administration, and which sanctions make nearly impossible, would increase the feasibility of a regional security architecture and serve as a precedent for other territorial disputes in the region, as well as allow Japanese firms to return to bidding on energy projects which are no doubt much more competitive due to ruble depreciation.

Additionally, Russian interests and security anxieties in the Far East amid growing resource constraints may make Moscow more willing to contribute to a set framework for regional relations and peaceful dispute settlement. Both Washington and Moscow should be concerned by the continued lack of a unified historical narrative agreed upon by all Northeast Asian countries – or at least China, Japan, and South Korea. Russian scholars themselves may recall Mao Zedong’s suggestion that China lay claim to sections of the Russian Far East earlier acquired through “unequal treaties.”


Short-term Costs, Long-term Benefits for Washington

Russia’s estrangement from the West has traditionally pushed Moscow into closer ties with Asia. Most recently this can be seen through growing business ties with the Middle East and East Asian nations due to decreased access to Western businesses and financing. However, while a rebalancing of national resources and stronger focus on the underdeveloped Far Eastern provinces is a long overdue development, it should contribute to, rather than disrupt, the current East Asian security order.

Most recently, the joint statement between US and Indian authorities during President Obama’s visit to India shows an increasing agreement between Asian powers and the US about the need to hedge against perceived Chinese efforts to challenge the status quo. As Russian actions in the past have demonstrated a similar hedging strategy, American policymakers should consider the possibility of cooperation even as there are strong disagreements in other areas. Allowing Japan to opt out of the sanctions regime, as is already the case with South Korea, would ensure that Russia maintains its traditional pivoting strategy in the Asia Pacific, and prevent the growth of a revisionist partnership of necessity with the PRC. In the long term, the benefits of this strategy far outweigh any short-term costs.